I have been listening with considerable enjoyment to Christian radio, mostly KBRT, which is preset in the car I have been driving in Los Angeles. Despite having wasted my college education on deconstructionist literary theory, I nevertheless still believe in the value of disciplined close reading and am touched by the devotion to the words of the Bible that many radio preachers evince, even if that devotion rests on a false apprehension regarding the text’s source. I like the generally cheerful attitude towards self-improvement and the call to self-evaluation. To be sure, there’s plenty of whacky and contradictory supernaturalism as well. Todd White, who purports to cure even “High Priestesses of Satan” of such illnesses as sciatica with Jesus’ power, explained why Holocaust survivors should not have lost their faith in God: “God is not in control,” he said, arriving at a perfectly logical explanation for the daily slaughter of the innocents . The next day, Wiley Drake, the pastor of the First Southern Baptist Church in Garden Grove, Ca., asserted more conventionally: “God’s in control of everything.” How we’re supposed to referee such conflicting claims is left unresolved. (Wiley Drake has been in the news recently for his unapologetic embrace of “imprecatory prayer” to call for “President Barack Hussein Obama’s” death. Drake argues unimpeachably that if you’re going to view the Bible as the word of God, you can’t edit out, as “some panty-waist, user-friendly preachers” do, the parts that no longer conform to our moral sensibilities, including the two dozen or so Psalms that revel in God’s willingness to mercilessly slaughter Israel’s enemies. KBRT host Rick Buhler agreed with Wiley that reciting Biblical death wishes had nothing to do with voodoo and cheerfully reminded him: “Please let me know if I end up on your imprecatory list. Bless you, Wiley.”)
All this is illuminating and entertaining. But however much I applaud the regular attention to self-inspection, nothing I have heard on Christian radio changes my view that moral reasoning is independent of, and a condition precedent to, religious injunction. (And, a fortiori, religiously-inspired moral preaching says nothing about whether God actually exists.)
The really hard moral challenges are not much assisted by Biblical commands, it seems to me. The Ten Commandments are a set of no-brainers—at least those not concerned with ensuring prostration before God. No society would regard murder as legitimate behavior (though every society sanctions killing other human beings under various circumstances which the Bible does not spell out). But how do you decide, say, where your responsibility towards another person begins and ends and how best to fulfill it? If a friend, family member, or soul mate persists in engaging in what you believe to be self-destructive behavior, for example, how unrelentingly should you push for change, and when do you back off and say: “It’s your choice, I will desist trying to change you.” Embracing an ethic of love doesn’t answer the question, which requires a nuanced exploration of our actual power over other human beings and our duty towards others, as well as a context-specific evaluation of our relationship to the person we hope to persuade and his willingness to be nudged or harangued. Such dilemmas have only provisional answers, however much we might yearn for a stable answer from outside of ourselves. Injunctions to make no idols and “have no other God besides me” are no help at all.